The future of East Kensington The Viking Mills complex comes into focus as a luxury housing project as Chatham Bay Group releases details for review by a panel of city-appointed architects and planners.
The project will transform the long-standing maze of craft shops, recording studios, and gallery spaces into a 178-unit apartment building with top-notch amenities like infrared saunas, a lap pool, a 2,000-square-foot gym, and a pickleball court.
“Our goal was to make the best project out of it [near] Fishtown,” said Patrick Duffy, CEO of Chatham Bay Group. “It will have a resort style amenities package from top to bottom.”
Apartments for $1,500 and up
The project envisages the demolition of the existing one-story industrial building on the south side of the site, which will be replaced by a six-story residential building with 100 new units, a basement and a roof terrace. At the northern end of the site, the roof of the existing building will be removed and replaced by a lounge and another roof terrace. The other 78 units are located in this renovated building that used to house artists’ studios.
The complex will feature a mix of studios averaging $1,550, one-bedrooms in the low-$2,000 range and two-bedrooms in the mid-$2,000 range.
According to city records, Duffy and partner Jay Freebery purchased the existing site, which is designated for industrial and residential use, on Aug. 29 for $9.6 million. Chatham Bay estimates the price for construction to be between $45 million and $47 million.
Construction was originally scheduled to begin in late 2022, but Duffy said there was a three-month delay because the previous owners “misrepresented” the condition of the building during the sale. In particular, he claims, it was not said openly that it was still occupied by some of the previous artist and entrepreneur tenants.
“We should have inherited an empty building,” Duffy said. “It was a complete mess. The sellers misrepresented everything they were supposed to do. We are now in litigation with him.”
On October 14, a case was filed in district court between 2019 E. Boston St. LLC (Chatham Bay) and Viking Mill Associates. A trial date is planned for April. Former property owners, David Hirsh and Bob Weinstein, did not respond to requests for comment.
Chatham Bay said it negotiated with individual tenants to secure their exit from the building. The last resident moved out in December. According to the previous tenant, the interior demolition had already begun by then. On Dec. 15, the Department of Licensing and Inspections cited the property for “work performed without notifying the inspector,” and the case remains unresolved, according to city records.
In September, the previous tenants organized to try to delay their eviction. A petition was circulated on Change.org, and they reached out to elected local leaders for help.
“In the back of your mind you always know it’s not your place, you’re paying rent,” said Clifford Bailey, one of Viking Mills’ longest-serving tenants. “So fast [arts space] up, it can go back down just as quickly. That is very discouraging.”
Council member wants to help artists
Councilor Mark Squilla tried to help Chatham Bay and previous tenants negotiate fair exit terms. He said he found the experience eye-opening and didn’t realize that the reporting requirements for residential and commercial evictions could be so different.
Squilla wants to explore legal solutions to similar situations and ensure artists and small businesses have adequate time to relocate and remove their property. Several tenants at Viking Mills said they were unable to get all of their belongings out of the building.
“We need to look at how we can better protect small artists and businesses as they move forward in events like this,” Squilla said. “How much time is enough to move knowing that when a developer buys a property we are not sure they are told everything about who is in it? Once people are notified, panic sets in.”
Duffy said Chatham Bay, which has operated in Philadelphia since 2006, has never dealt with a situation like Viking Mills “where the seller openly lied and misrepresented the status of leases.”
The enduring appeal of Fishtown
Originally a small business renovating individual townhouses in South Philadelphia, it has grown into mid-size residential and industrial developments from East Falls to Fishtown.
They’re “very bullish” on Fishtown (whose boundaries seem to be expanding every year), Duffy said, noting that it’s among the hottest neighborhoods of Nashville or Austin nationally. Chatham Bay hopes to focus its efforts there for the next 10 years.
In that case, he said, there was nothing Chatham Bay could have done to avoid the situation other than suing the previous owners for misrepresentation.
“Our bank and our contractors were all upset that we couldn’t start on time,” Duffy said. “It was a difficult situation to find your way around.”
Bailey said a lot was lost with the sudden closure of Viking Mills. Many of the tenants have had to move out of the area where rents have become too expensive. He worries there are fewer neighborhoods across Philadelphia to accommodate creative, artistic, or just plain weird causes.
“It was one of the first things that turned the tide in the area and the gentrification aspect of what’s going on,” Bailey said. “It was also a community of creative people who did their best to help the community become what it is. Now it becomes housing for the mainstream. It’s a shame, I resent it, but it is what it is.”